Backlash to Racial Progress in Education Threatens Affirmative Action and Student Loan Policies

by Andrew Wright
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racial progress

Makia Green, a Black student raised by a single mother, recognizes the advantages she gained from a program that prioritized students of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds during her admission to the University of Rochester over a decade ago.

While Green, who still owes slightly over $20,000 in undergraduate student loans, had relied on President Joe Biden’s promised debt relief to alleviate most of her debt burden, both the affirmative action and student loan cancellation plans, which disproportionately aid Black students, face potential dismantlement by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many individuals of color, including Green, perceive these efforts to roll back such policies as part of a broader resistance against racial advancements in higher education.

As a community organizer, Green expresses her frustration, stating, “I feel like working people have been through enough — I have been through enough. From a pandemic, an uprising, a recession, the cost of living price going up. I deserved some relief.”

Wisdom Cole, director of NAACP’s youth and college program, points out that these rulings could have political ramifications among young voters of color who placed trust in Biden’s commitment to debt cancellation. Cole emphasizes the need for politicians to fulfill their promises, stating, “Year after year, we have elected officials, we have advocates, we have different politicos coming to our communities making promises. But now it’s time to deliver on those promises.”

Biden’s plan aims to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student debt and doubles the debt relief to $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants. According to the White House, about half of the average debt held by Black and Hispanic borrowers would be eliminated. However, six Republican-led states challenge the president’s authority to forgive the debt, raising questions regarding the legal basis for the debt relief.

The affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court revolve around race-conscious admissions policies employed by selective colleges to promote diversity on campuses. These cases were initiated by a conservative activist arguing that the Constitution prohibits using race in college admissions.

Expected to deliver their rulings by the end of June, the Supreme Court’s decisions in both cases center on policies addressing historical racial disparities in higher education access. Dominique Baker, an education policy professor at Southern Methodist University, highlights the disproportionate debt burden borne by Black students in their pursuit of higher education. Baker explains that backlash against racial progress often emerges following periods of social change, citing a 2019 study where states were more likely to enact bans on affirmative action when white enrollment at public flagship universities declined.

Baker asserts that these policy tools are explicitly aimed at reducing the influence of white supremacy, suggesting that the two court challenges can be viewed as interconnected responses to racial justice initiatives.

Green, who grew up in a low-income household in Harlem, New York, graduated from Rochester with approximately $40,000 in federal loan debt. She managed to reduce some of it through a public service forgiveness program during her two terms with AmeriCorps. Additionally, she made monthly payments until the government paused loan repayments due to the pandemic.

Green perceives both court cases as part of conservative attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. She argues that these oppositions stem from notions of fairness and white resentment towards the progress of nonwhite individuals. Green asserts, “This is white supremacy at work. This is a long tactic of conservative, white supremacist-leaning groups to use education and limit Black people’s access to education as a way to further control and oppress us.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, colleges implemented affirmative action plans to address the underrepresentation of historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, including predominantly white institutions. These policies also aimed to enhance the inclusion of women.

Since the late 1970s, the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action in college admissions three times, stating that institutions have a compelling interest in remedying past discrimination that excluded nonwhite students from higher education. Justices have recognized the benefits of diverse student bodies in fostering cross-racial understanding.

However, concerns arise among former students and advocates regarding the impact of a ruling against affirmative action on campus diversity, especially given the Court’s increasing ideological conservatism. Tarina Ahuja, a senior at Harvard College, emphasizes the significance of a diverse student body in her undergraduate experience, as it allows for meaningful discussions on topics such as police violence, colonialism, and labor movements from diverse perspectives.

Colleges, anticipating a potential ruling against race-conscious admissions, are considering various measures, such as additional essays to understand applicants’ backgrounds better or increased recruitment efforts in racially diverse areas. Nevertheless, previous attempts in states where affirmative action is banned have struggled to maintain diversity at selective colleges.

Jonathan Loc, a Harvard graduate student who organized teach-ins supporting affirmative action, highlights the inextricable link between students of color and race when discussing their lives, including the challenges they face and their cultural heritage. Loc believes that recognizing these narratives is essential to address racial justice and ensure the stories of individuals from diverse backgrounds are heard.

If the Supreme Court rules against affirmative action, it will be crucial for colleges to find alternative ways to demonstrate their commitment to students beyond mere numerical evaluations. Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, stresses the importance of schools conveying the message, “‘Look, the court says we can’t consider race, but we still see you.'”

Kristin McGuire, executive director of Young Invincibles, acknowledges the significance of the upcoming Juneteenth holiday in the context of these pending decisions. She emphasizes that if both policies are struck down, it will indicate a lack of support from the court system for vulnerable populations, particularly those who played a crucial role in building the nation.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about racial progress

Q: What is the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s rulings on affirmative action and student loan policies?

A: The Supreme Court’s rulings on affirmative action and student loan policies could have significant consequences. If affirmative action is dismantled, it may affect diversity on college campuses, while a ruling against student loan policies could impact debt relief efforts. Both cases are seen by many as part of a backlash against racial progress in education.

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1 comment

Sam88 June 15, 2023 - 9:13 am

SC’s ruling gonna affct racial justice & equity. Affirmative action imp 4 campus diversity, & loan relief is vital. Can’t let dem take it away! Need support 4 nonwhite students!


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